The Maryland General Assembly is considering new laws that may affect the rights of criminal defendants. Some legislators apparently believe that when an accused is charged with a crime, if it's too expensive to provide them an attorney, the way to solve the problem and save money is to strip their rights to an attorney.
The Controversy Over Rights to an Attorney
The issue relates to an accused's right to an attorney at a bail, or bond hearing. The U.S. Constitution doesn't explicitly require an attorney be provided to a criminal defendant who can't afford their own lawyer at bail hearings, the way it does for actual trials. Neither does the Maryland constitution provide that right explicitly.
A Maryland case recently required that an attorney be provided to defendants at the bail stage, under the Maryland constitution.
Bail hearings in Maryland are usually first held before court commissioners. When legislators tried to legislate away the right to an attorney when appearing before these commissioners, the Maryland Court of Appeals overruled that measure, saying defendants are entitled to an attorney at all stages of a proceeding, no matter if before a commissioner or a judge.
The Problem of Cost
The problem came in implementing the court's decision. Using state-paid public defenders was too expensive to provide the service, especially for as many bail hearings that take place after normal business hours. So, Maryland contracts out private lawyers, at hourly rates, to provide counsel at the bail stage.
But that solution is costing the state too much money, according to some lawmakers.
One idea to address the cost was to allow police officers to issue citations for many offenses, as opposed to taking defendants into custody, in order to reduce the number of bail hearings that need to be conducted. That bill failed.
Now some legislators are simply proposing a quick and easy way of solving the problem--just strip defendants of their right to an attorney at the bail stage completely by passing a new law, or amending the Maryland constitution. But many legislators are not supporting that drastic of a measure.
Both Sides Make Arguments
Proponents of the measure point out that 64 percent of criminal defendants waive their right to an attorney at bond hearings anyway. Thus, stripping them of the right to an attorney wouldn't have as drastic of an effect as people may believe.
Critics of changing the law point out that although providing counsel is costly, the state is not in an economic crisis, and can afford the expense. Critics also point out that when there is an increased cost to detaining defendants, the state and police departments may be more discerning and exacting in making sure they are only arresting and detaining those who need to be.
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